Law Day is a day set aside nationally each year to celebrate the rule of law. It provides an opportunity to understand how law and the legal process protect our liberty, strive to achieve justice, and contribute to the freedoms that all Americans share. Each year, the SJCBA selects a community member who represents the ideals that Law Day celebrates.
The 2019 Law Day Award was presented to Tom Keeling at a lunch on April 30 at the Stockton Golf and Country Club. Tom is a partner at The Freeman Firm and a California State Bar Certified Appellate Law Specialist.
Tom grew up in Bakersfield, where he was the salutatorian of the class of 1968 at West High School. The CV version of his life reads like that of a Supreme Court appointee. Tom graduated Phi Beta Kappa in English from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 1972, as the “Outstanding Graduating Senior in English.” Tom was then admitted to UCLA’s highly-competitive doctoral program in English. Five years later, he received his Ph.D.—at a time when only one out of three doctoral candidates successfully completed the program.
Dr. Keeling then taught at UCLA and UCSB for four years before deciding that the academic career he had worked so hard for 10 years to attain was not the path he wanted to travel. He left academics and enrolled in the Stanford University Law School in 1981. Among Tom’s famous classmates at Stanford were the current California Attorney General, Xavier Becerra, and basketball legend Bill Walton.
After graduating in 1984, Tom clerked for California Supreme Court Justice Otto Kaus before beginning private practice in the Los Angeles office of a national law firm where he focused on complex civil litigation and appeals. In 1994, Tom escaped Los Angeles and moved to Sacramento before settling in with San Joaquin County’s Freeman Firm and our legal community in 1999.
While his “golden boy” academic and legal careers are impressive, those who have the honor of knowing Tom appreciate that he is so much more than his impressive CV.
Tom grew up poor as the oldest of three boys in Bakersfield. His parents did not attend college. His father died when Tom was six. When he was 12 his mother married an oil refinery worker who was a former Marine drill sergeant. The new discipline in the home was not what Tom wanted but absolutely was what he needed.
While in high school Tom work variously as a janitor, as a stock boy, for a plant nursery and finally as a substitute clerk/ carrier for the Post Office.
At UCSB Tom discovered a whole new life beyond Bakersfield. He had an insatiable thirst for knowledge and was excited by the variety of academic offerings. He also enjoyed dorm food, his girlfriend, late night studying, and his long flowing hair. In his freshman year he vowed to become an English professor and worked very hard to successfully attain that goal.
Tom had to pay his own way through school. At UCSB, a combination of academic scholarships, more work at the Post Office, serving beer and wine at a pizza parlor, washing dishes, and tutoring got him through. At UCLA he earned a Regent’s Intern Fellowship award.
In 1977 he met Kathy. In 1983 they became a couple. In 1985 they were married. Tom characterizes his marriage to Kathy as the “single best decision I ever made. I married above my station.”
Kathy and Tom became parents to Matthew and Kristine. Kathy is a longtime teacher of Japanese at Lincoln High School and a mentor to countless high school students.
Tom’s passion is what he calls “the life of the mind.” He and Kathy enjoy literature (no surprise), hiking, good food and wine, browsing bookstores, and regular treks to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
In the Freeman Firm and San Joaquin County, the path Tom chose has brought him to where he belongs. Tom says that he is a member of the “best true community of legal professionals he has encountered.” The community is better for his presence.
His intellect, work ethic, and pleasant demeanor make him the consummate professional; a role model. He is a wonderful representative of San Joaquin County to judges and lawyers in other jurisdictions.
A respected local judge said that Tom is “a gifted lawyer and advocate. He possesses an all-too-rare combination of intellect and leadership, imagination and judgment, unfailing tenacity, and professionalism. Tom is a happy warrior. His love and passion for his work is both obvious and contagious.”
Tom has served our legal community as president of both the San Joaquin County Bar Association and the Callahan Inn of Court. Tom was a leader in establishing and maintaining the SJCBA’s successful annual MCLE program. He continues to serve the legal and broader communities as a mentor, speaker, teacher, and volunteer. Everyone who knows him knows a respected colleague and friend.